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Thank you. I’m trying to pay you back.

By Camille Dungy

I’m thinking of Martin Luther King, Jr. today, on the 44th anniversary of his assassination. I am thinking of the hard work and ultimate sacrifice he made. I am thinking of the hard work and sacrifice so many good people have made for people they would never know. Thank you. I honor you.

Today and every day I work to honor you with poetry. I work to honor you by reading and writing and by teaching others how to read and write. These are not simply ways I pass my time. We only have a limited amount of time in these bodies, and I am not reading and writing and teaching to while my portion away. This is a serious endeavor for me partly because I know the extreme sacrifices others have made so that it would be possible for me to take my freedoms for granted.

In 1999, when I began my first tenure-track professorship, I was only the second African American to hold such a post at that college. Their first African-American tenure-track professor had also been hired in the ’90s. Many of the people who fought for our right to attend that college, let alone to teach there, had long since died. Every day, when I walked onto campus and taught a class on poetry, or composition, or women’s studies, I knew that I was the walking representation of the fulfillment of someone’s dream. And, I should point out, I was the walking representation of the fulfillment of someone else’s nightmare.

The library in that town was originally in a stately Neoclassical building, built in 1908. Domes and columns, ancient dogwoods in the yard. The building is often vacant these days. One reason is that, according to the deed, Black people were denied access to the library. When the city was forced to desegregate their library, they had to move to a whole new building, an ugly 1960s hulk of brick and tinted glass. When I checked out a book in that town, I knew that I was actively fulfilling somebody’s dream, and that I was the enactment of somebody else’s nightmare.

Maybe this is part of why I believe in the two-sided nature of all things, including poetry. Plenty of major civil rights figures lived well beyond the 1960s. As June Jordan said, “Some of us did not die.” But, through their deaths, we learned how to name many of our martyrs, and they are often the ones we speak of most frequently. The horrific sacrifice the dead made, the end to all their promise and potential, was often the beginning of the most sustained work of their lives. How can something so horrible also be so beautiful and true? It is on April 4, 2012, the 44th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death, that I am sitting down to write these thoughts. Part of the legacy of Dr. King is linked directly to his murder. Someone’s dream is very often someone else’s nightmare.

I don’t think any of the ideas I covered above are disconnected from conversations about the necessity of poetry. When I sit down to work on a poem, I have to be aware that there is more than one side to any story I write or read. I also can’t help but remember that I am exercising a hard-fought-for privilege. I am doing what I want to do with my life, living it fully. I am reading and writing, which were not always things that a person who looked like me would have been able to do. (Watch Nikky Finney’s amazing 2011 National Book Award acceptance speech if you want to hear more about that.) So when I write it is not just art for art’s sake. It is art with lives at stake, dream-visioned and nightmarish lives that came before me and lives that will come long after I am gone.

I remember coming into being as a poet and reading the work of women and men like Gwendolyn Brooks, Lucille Clifton, Nikki Giovanni, and Robert Hayden, men and women who shared a history with me and helped me to understand that history in a way the history books never could. When I write poetry, I do so with the awareness that I could serve as such a model for some other young man or woman who I will likely never personally know. When I teach poetry, the same is true. I can teach poetry because of the sacrifices others have made for me (without even knowing I would one day exist). When I write and teach poetry I am making worlds possible for people who will come after me (most of whom I will never know).

I am writing this post on the 44th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. I am thinking of the hard work and ultimate sacrifice he made. I am thinking of the hard work and sacrifice so many good people have made for people they would never know. Thank you. I’m trying to pay you back by looking forward.

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Posted in Uncategorized on Wednesday, April 4th, 2012 by Camille Dungy.